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What New York Times President and CEO Mark Thompson had to say about ad blocking

June 6, 2016 | By DCN

New York Times President and CEO, Mark Thompson addressed the IAB Ad Blocking Summit, held June 6, 2016 in New York City. In his talk, An Update from The New York Times on Its Approach to Ad Blocking, Thompson took a hard look at the factors contributing to the rise of ad blocking and urged the entire industry to take responsibility for fostering a climate in which digital advertising degrades the user experience and fuels the adoption of ad blockers. Through the lens of The New York Times experience, Thompson provided insights into productive and proactive steps that digital content companies –  and the entire industry – can take to address ad blocking.

Below is the full text of the talk he delivered:

Mark Thompson, President & Chief Executive Officer, The New York Times Company

Thanks Randall [Randall Rothenberg. President and CEO of the IAB].

I want to make five points this morning. The first is that we have to clean up our own act as an industry.

To a significant extent, the root cause of digital ad-blocking is digital ads and the way many websites deploy them on their sites.

Too many ads. Intrusive and distracting ads. Ads which slow page-load to a crawl, or are slow to load in and of themselves. Boring and uncreative ads, which no user can possibly enjoy viewing. ‘Relevance’ –if it means endlessly retargeting users with ads for something they searched for and bought or lost interest in weeks ago. The pervasive and indiscriminate tracking and sharing of user data.

We’re not all equally guilty. At The New York Times, we’ve kept the number of display ads on the page low. We’ve worked hard with our advertising partners to develop campaigns that are creative and compelling. We’ve developed new units and ideas – like Flex Frames which we launched last year as Mobile Moments on smartphone and which we’ll extend to all platforms this September.

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. If a user installs an ad-blocker because of unacceptable ad experiences somewhere else then, guilty or not, we still face the challenge of persuading them to uninstall it or, more plausibly, to whitelist us so that their ad blocker allows our ads to load. Our first task as an industry is get rid of the bad experiences which make that whole tricky process necessary.

 And our second is to develop and promote digital advertising whose originality and quality engages and delights users and, because of that, also delivers real results for advertisers.

In a world of phones and feeds, marketers need to think like programmers rather than as traditional advertisers, not trying to steal attention which is directed at something else, but offering consumers content which actually has value to them, in the right context and user-experience.

Our branded content business at The Times is all about that – creating and distributing high quality programming for marketers. It didn’t exist in 2013. It delivered more than $13m of revenue in 2014, and $34 million in 2015. We expect it to grow very substantially again in 2016.

For us, branded content does not mean fake journalism trying to pass itself off as genuine newsroom output. It’s work like the animated virtual reality film we made for GE for the launch of our VR app and the distribution of a million Google cardboards. High quality content well worth consuming in its own right.

And it’s not just about branded content; we’re also focusing quite a bit of energy on making display advertising better. Fewer, faster ads, delivered at the pace of mobile and more compelling at the point of discovery, where the user first sees the ad. Clearly labeled but an integral part of the main news feed, on both the phone and the desktop. Bigger, punchier units that provide a better canvas for creativity.

Third, we must do a much better job of explaining our business model – and the connection between advertising revenue and high quality content – to our users.

Let me talk about The New York Times first, then turn to digital publishing as a whole.

At The Times we have two big revenue streams in both print and digital: subscription and advertising. In print, where we make around $1 billion of revenue a year, the proportion is currently about 60/40, with $600 million coming from home delivery subscription and newsstand sales, and $400 million from print advertising. In digital, at present it’s more or less 50/50.

Our digital news subscription business is the largest and most successful in the world and it’s still growing rapidly. In the first quarter of 2016, we added 67,000 net new subscriptions – that’s more than we did in any of the three previous years. Our model is accelerating, in other words.

But delivering national and international journalism to the quality to which The Times aspires and our users expect means massive investment. We believe we can grow our digital subscription business until we have many times the current number of subscription relationships, which across print, digital, news and crosswords stands at around two and a half million. We do not believe that we will ever be able to sustain Times journalism or The New York Times as a flourishing business without an advertising business of real scale.

We need to spell this out clearly to our users. The journalism they enjoy costs real money and needs to be paid for. Advertising is a vital part of the revenue mix.

Everyone knows and accepts that physical newspapers cost money to produce and that someone who steals a copy of a newspaper from a newsstand is a thief. That’s not a word I’d use of those who install ad blockers – the Internet has left many people with the erroneous impression that digital high quality content doesn’t cost anything to produce – but there are some awkward facts to be faced.

If you consume great journalism without making any contribution towards paying for the journalists and the editors and photographers and videographers and graphics artists and engineers, and if enough people follow your example, that journalism will either be diluted or restricted to the relatively small number of people who have the willingness and ability to buy a subscription. And not just you but everyone will be impoverished as a result.

We want our journalism to be widely available and for non-subscribers as well as subscribers to be able to sample large amounts of it. Of the around 110 million people who come to us each month, more than 107 million are not subscribers. If ad blocking becomes ubiquitous, that kind of free reach will no longer make economic sense.

We believe in the civic value of our journalism and we want it to be widely read across America and the world, but not if that undermines our ability to continue to produce it.

No one who refuses to contribute to the creation of high quality journalism has the right to consume it. We are not there yet but, if we judge that it will strengthen the long-term prospects of that journalism to prevent non-subscribers who employ ad blockers and refuse to whitelist us from reading it, we’ll do it.

But if this is a real issue for us, consider those publishers who do not have a digital subscription model and who are entirely reliant on digital advertising, to replace falling print revenues in the case of legacy companies, and for the whole of their revenue in the case of digital ones.

I don’t need to tell anyone here that digital advertising is going through a wider disruption with the astonishingly rapid switch of consumption to smartphone, the decline of standard web rotational display, the power of the major social and search platforms and so on. My friend Shane Smith talked recently about a likely bloodbath among advertising-dependent publishers this year. I’m British and I find the word ‘bloodbath’ a shade melodramatic – especially from a Canadian – but I agree with Shane’s analysis.

This is why proportionate but meaningful industry-wide action on ad blocking is so important.

So put my first three points together and think of them as a potential new agreement between publishers and users. We have a responsibility to work with advertisers to deliver rich, enjoyable, valuable ad experiences, and to use and pass on data about their visits to our sites fairly and transparently. They have a responsibility to contribute to the economic sustainability of quality content creation.

In the end, free riding will not just damage us and the wider public realm. It will damage them.

Let’s now turn to my fourth point, which is a practical one. There is early but encouraging evidence that a significant proportion of users will respond to clear messaging about ad blocking and the threat it poses to quality content.

And that point is grounded in a basic idea that has become a requirement of digital business: when you empower your customers by providing them with choice, good things can happen.

Over the past few months, as part of a wider program of experiments and surveys, we’ve tested both dismissible and undismissible messages about ad blocking. Both sets of messages sought to explain to users who had installed an ad blocker the connection between advertising revenue and the journalism they wanted to consume.

With the dismissible messages, the user could click and close the message and go on to read the story they had come to The Times for in the first place. undismissible messages prevented users who got them from reading the journalism at all, unless they agreed to whitelist us in their ad blocker.

We tested both dismissible and undismissible messages with non-subscribers. You won’t be surprised to hear that, at least in these limited tests, undismissible messages were much more effective than dismissible ones. Indeed, more than 40% of those who encountered the undismissible message agreed to whitelist The Times.

Times subscribers are already making a significant contribution to the funding of our journalism, so we think of them very differently. We did not put undismissible messages in front of these valued paying customers. But we did try dismissible messages – and no fewer than 30% of the ad blocker-using subscribers we tested agreed to whitelist The New York Times.

We’re still testing and analyzing, but even at this early stage we have confidence that – if we decide to move in this direction – we will be able to convince many of those who use ad blockers to whitelist us so that ads still load on The New York Times site. It may be that, in both cases, the percentages of those agreeing to whitelist would grow over time – though we also recognize that some ad blocking non-subscribers, who are repeatedly confronted with such messages but who are unwilling to whitelist, might give up using our site altogether.

That would be a pity, but neither they nor we can have it both ways. It’s not fair to continue to consume something you’re not prepared to support in any way. As for us, in principle we don’t want to stop anyone from sampling Times journalism, but we also have to accept that someone who won’t subscribe or look at ads doesn’t help us succeed in any way at all.

But we do want to offer all of our users as much choice as we can, and we recognize that there are some users – both subscribers and current non-subscribers – who would prefer to have an ad-free experience.

So we are also exploring the possibility of offering a higher tier digital subscription offer which would allow users to enjoy Times journalism without seeing advertisements, while still making a fair contribution towards its creation.

My fifth and final point is that – although we recognize some of the frustrations that have led users to adopt ad blockers – there are technologies and practices associating with ad blocking which are unfair and deceptive. We intend to push back against them and we want to encourage the rest of the industry to do the same.

We are particularly troubled by the business model of some of the largest ad blockers who whitelist advertising in return for payment, thus effectively requiring digital publishers to pay in order to receive advertisements to their own users – including advertisements which are, by anyone’s definition, non-invasive.

The largest entity engaged in this practice is the private limited company Eyeo, which owns both the leading desktop ad blocker, Adblock Plus, and the so-called Acceptable Ads whitelist, which seeks a 30% of revenue from any firm that generates more than 10 million unblocked ad impressions a month as a result of appearing on its whitelist.

This is a manifestly unsavory business practice. Ad blockers often portray themselves as an answer to unsatisfactory digital advertising experiences. But Eyeo wasn’t founded by concerned citizens. It was founded by a digital ad veteran and represents the most cynical, most money-grasping end of the old unreformed digital ad business. We need to expose Eyeo, Adblock Plus and the Acceptable Ads whitelist, so that the public can see them for what they are.

Unlike most of the other ad blockers in the marketplace, Eyeo is not attempting to limit tagging to protect privacy – they permit trackers to pay to be included in their Acceptable Ads programs.

Eyeo’s secondary line of business has been to license the “Acceptable Ads” whitelist to other ad blockers, including some smaller mobile ad blockers. The second largest ad blocker, Ad Block, which was sold in October to and unknown buyer, also uses Eyeo’s Acceptable Ads list.

We want to encourage other publishers and counterparts throughout the industry, and the organizations which represent us, to be trenchant in publicly confronting ad blockers who engage in these coercive and misleading business practices. Recently, we have joined with other publishers in the NAA in filing a complaint with the FTC to investigate certain deceptive practices of ad blockers.

It is not just publishers who are vulnerable to these trade practices, and we encourage our partners across the industry to seek out opportunities to oppose them.

Five points then:

  1. We have to clean up our own act as an industry.
  2. We must develop digital advertising which is valuable and a pleasure to consume.
  3. We must make sure our users understand the link between ad revenue and high quality content.
  4. There is evidence that many users will respond to the right messages about ad blocking.
  5. We must fight the unacceptable and deceptive business practices associated with some ad blockers.

Ad blocking is undeniably a challenge – I wouldn’t have said what I have this morning if it wasn’t – but let me finish by putting it into perspective.

We’re still certain that digital advertising will play a critical and positive role in our future success. As you’ve heard, we’re pivoting our ad business towards less intrusive, leaner, inline display; branded content; bold new smartphone executions, video, virtual reality and other kinds of visual storytelling. We believe that right now we’re offering our users the best digital advertising experiences in the history of digital publishing.

We’re already seeing tangible results – revenue from smartphone advertising, for instance, grew 149% year over year in the first quarter of the year – but the best is still to come.

So let’s take firm action on ad blocking. But let’s also unlock the full creative and economic potential of our ability to bring great content, great users and great creative advertisers together. Thank you.

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